12 Days of Self Care: Building Healthy Habits With an Unhealthy Brain

On the tenth day of our 12 Days of Self-Care series, Take This website editor Nissa Campbell shares her personal experience with building healthy habits while dealing with depression and anxiety. For more helpful tips on coping with common stresses of the holiday season and the transition into the new year, check out the full series.

Hi, friends! You probably already know me: As website editor for Take This, I write most of the daily content we share. While I’m happy to talk about mental health every day of the week, I don’t often get personal. In part, that’s because I’m not a mental health professional — I’m just a writer with a couple decades of lived experience with depression and anxiety.

That means that the inside of my head usually looks something like this:


It also means that trying to make New Year’s resolutions usually feels like going to war with myself. Does this sound familiar?

Me: I should start keeping a journal in the New Year. Everyone says it’s a super healthy thing to do, and it will probably make everything much better.
Also me: You think you can actually keep that up? Right, sure, tell that to the last twenty years of resolutions. And anyways, it’s not like it will actually help. Nothing ever does. How do you even know that this even is the right thing to spend your time on? It could be a waste. Better not bother.

Even aside from the half-dozen cognitive distortions I’m playing with there, setting goals, making resolutions, or otherwise committing to improving myself can be fraught. And that’s when I can muster up the energy and motivation to try.

Depression lies. One of its biggest, most insidious lies is that everything we’re doing is worthless, so we might as well stop. When we do nothing, depression thrives. When we stick to our self-care routines and take care of ourselves, it suffers. The trick is to find a way to keep moving forward when those lies are all you can hear and getting out of bed seems like challenge enough.

I can’t offer any foolproof solutions. In this series, our experts cover the fundamentals of setting and achieving your goals, but beyond those basics, I’m not sure there are any foolproof solutions. I have mountains of journals, piles of spreadsheets and gigabytes of apps that were meant to reshape me into the person I wanted to be, and what I learned from all of it was that the perfect system doesn’t exist, at least not for me. Instead, I found bits and pieces that worked, and I built from there.

Go your own way

The rules of habit formation are simple and strict: It takes 21 days to form a habit. Or maybe it’s 66 days, or 254? No, wait — it’s not about days. It’s about fight-thrus.

And to hit those milestones, you should never break the chain, eat your frogs first, define your MITs, and… I’m already exhausted. There’s no single answer, and all those magic numbers contradict each other.

Honestly, though, contradictory as they might be, productivity systems can be helpful. I use an app that keeps track of habit streaks to keep me on task, and I love it. But sometimes, the weight of the occasional missed day will crush me and I need to switch things up. As for “eating frogs,” if there’s one thing that will keep me from getting a single thing done in a day, it’s trying to start on the most difficult task. I need the momentum of a few small wins before I try to tackle whatever I’m dreading most. Similarly, keeping your to-do lists short and achievable is good advice — unless you thrive on pressure.

We know ourselves better than productivity gurus ever could. If common wisdom is doing you more harm than good, then find an approach that works for you. Keeping up a constant cycle of ‘this system will change my life’ to ‘I’m a total failure’ isn’t good for anyone.

Evaluate carefully

If you’ve ever found a strategy that you think works for you only to realize it’s doing more harm than good — take self-medicating with alcohol as an extreme example — you know the importance of evaluating your efforts. That’s a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Not only do you need to dig your actual experience out of any cognitive distortions you’ve buried it in, you also need to find the perspective to decide whether or not your strategy is having a genuinely beneficial effect on your life. It doesn’t help that perspective can be especially hard to find when you’re depressed.

Here, I can make one wholehearted recommendation: find a therapist you trust and get their help with this. Personally, I don’t suffer from an inflated view of my own success — I struggle with seeing the benefits of anything I’m doing. When I’m overwhelmed with doubts, my therapist helps me see if my efforts are slowly leading to positive outcomes. When I stumble or make sub-optimal choices, she helps me stop spiraling before I decide all my progress has been worthless.

If traditional therapy is out of reach for you, there are other options. Online therapy is one — the APA has a good research-backed rundown of how it compares to face-to-face therapy. If online therapy is also too costly, look at other ways to measure your own success. People starting an exercise regimen often take daily photos of themselves so they can see their progress, since it’s hard to identify incremental changes. Similarly, mood charts, journals and mood tracking apps can help us get a better overall picture of our progress.

Again, depression wants you to believe that you’re not making progress. Hard proof can help shut that insidious idea down.

Take pride in your accomplishments

Building healthy habits is hard, and we all slip up eventually. Some of us slip up regularly. And, hey — that’s life. We learn from our failures and move forward.

Or we dwell in our failures forever. I do a lot of that one, myself.

The best way I’ve found to avoid dwelling is to be mindful of my accomplishments and to give myself credit for them. Instead of focusing on the to-do list items I haven’t checked off, the broken habit streaks or the plans that have fallen through, I try to take the time to recognize the things I’ve achieved in a day — even if I haven’t achieved much.

(It’s so tempting to believe that beating myself up is helpful and recognizing small accomplishments is just embracing laziness, but if self-recrimination hasn’t worked in the last couple decades, it’s probably not about to start now.)

Depression and anxiety bump normal life up to hard mode. Wins are wins, whether or not other people recognize them. If getting out of bed is challenging for you, then getting out of bed is a win, full stop. It might not get you to your goals, but it’s a step in the right direction. Embracing your successes is always going to get you further than being ashamed of your failures.

I know you’re trying. I’m trying too. So let’s take a moment here at the end of the year to celebrate that effort. 2017 has been a tough year, and we survived it. Whatever your goals, whatever your resolutions, you’re here, and you’ve committed to making next year better than the last. No matter what depression tries to tell you, that’s amazing!

Even if you can only believe it for a second, remember: you’re here, you’re amazing, and you’re not alone.

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